- The Washington Times - Monday, September 4, 2006

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AP) - U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said today that Israel and Hezbollah have agreed to indirect talks for the release of two abducted Israeli soldiers and that he will appoint a mediator.

Israel previously had refused indirect contacts with the Lebanese guerrilla group - at least publicly - over winning the release of the two soldiers, snatched in a cross-border raid on July 12. Their capture sparked a massive Israeli offensive against Hezbollah that lasted 34 days until a U.N.-arranged cease-fire.

Hezbollah has said it would only free the two Israelis as part of a swap for Arab prisoners held by Israel. It also repeatedly has said it is ready for mediation to arrange an exchange. Israel has insisted it wants an unconditional release of the soldiers.

Annan said at a press conference in Jiddah that both sides had agreed to let his office negotiate between them on the issue of the soldiers, according to an Arabic translation of his comments.

He said he would appoint a mediator who would operate secretly to facilitate working between the two sides.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev and Hezbollah’s chief spokesman, Hussein Rahal, refused to comment on the report.

Annan did not specify whether the mediation would center on proposals for a prisoner swap.

Annan’s spokesman, Ahmed Fawzi, said Israel and Hezbollah had both requested that Annan mediate in the prisoner issue.

“The secretary-general has accepted to play a role as mediator in the matter of the abducted soldiers,” Fawzi told The Associated Press.

Word of the mediation mission came as Annan met with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah in the Red Sea port of Jiddah, the latest stop in an 11-day tour of the Middle East aimed at getting all sides to implement and support the U.N. cease-fire resolution.

The U.N. resolution calls for the two Israelis’ release, and Israel has underlined that winning their freedom is crucial for the truce to hold. At the same time, it has been showing signs of backing down on its refusal to negotiate a swap amid growing public pressure. Hezbollah and Israel have had prisoner swaps in the past.

Saudi Arabia is a key player in Lebanon, where U.N. peacekeepers have started to arrive to monitor the Israel-Hezbollah cease-fire. Saudi Arabia has pledged $1.5 billion in aid for Lebanon, and a government-organized telethon has netted nearly $29 million in support of Lebanon.

As the birthplace of Islam and the world’s largest oil producer, the kingdom enjoys vast religious and financial powers and influence in the Middle East.

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